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House panel advances bill to remove segregationist Byrd's statue from Capitol Square
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House panel advances bill to remove segregationist Byrd's statue from Capitol Square

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A House panel on Friday endorsed removing from Capitol Square a statue of former Sen. Harry Byrd Sr., architect of Massive Resistance to school desegregation.

The House Rules Committee voted 13-5 along party lines to back a bill to remove the statue of the Democrat who was governor from 1926-30 and a U.S. senator from 1933 to 1965.

The panel also voted 16-0 to endorsed a state panel's recommendation to erect a Virginia statue of teenage civil rights pioneer Barbara Johns at the U.S. Capitol, replacing the recently removed statue of Robert E. Lee. Both measures advance to the full House.

The effort to replace the Byrd statue comes after Virginia replaced much of its public Confederate iconography. The killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last May prompted a national reckoning on racial injustice and summer protests in Richmond and across the country.

Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, who is seeking his party's nomination for attorney general, introduced the bill to remove the Byrd statue.

"It is my deep belief that monuments to segregation, Massive Resistance and the subjugation of one race below another, like this statue, serve only as a reminder to the overt and institutional racism that has and continues to plague our commonwealth," Jones told the Rules Committee during a virtual meeting Friday morning.

Rita Davis, counsel to Gov. Ralph Northam, spoke for the measure on the administration's behalf.

"The statue of Mr. Byrd must be removed. Its continued existence at the main seat of government is a moral affront to commonwealth employees of color everywhere who work every day to make Virginia a better place," Davis said.

"Had Mr. Byrd had his way I would never have the opportunity to be before you because I'm Black. Certain members of the General Assembly would never be able to serve because they're not white.

"Mr. Byrd preferred and strenuously worked towards preventing African Americans from voting, from being seen, from being heard, from ever being a part of the political process. And had Mr. Byrd had his way, no Black child ever, ever, would sit next to, play with, read a book with, or be educated alongside a white child."

Davis said "the question is not whether we should remove Mr. Byrd's statue from Capitol Square, but rather, why on earth would we keep it in Capitol Square?"

The panel also voted to honor Johns, the 16-year-old who led a 1951 student walkout at Farmville's Moton High School to protest the students' substandard segregated school facilities. The case was rolled into Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled government-segregated public schools unconstitutional.

Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, who served as a member of the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol, sponsored the resolution backing the Johns statue. Ward told the Rules committee that she looks forward to Johns' likeness joining the "old men standing around the walls" at the U.S. Capitol. A Johns statue would send a message to young visitors that "they don't have to be old to do great things," she said.

Johns died in 1991. Two of her siblings, Ernest Johns, and Joan Johns Cobbs, expressed the family's appreciation to the committee Friday for considering their sister.

"What she did in 1951 was very courageous," Cobbs said. "We are grateful as a family."

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Staunton, who would vote in favor of the measure, called Johns an "exemplary representative of the commonwealth," especially given "the time of her life when she made a difference," but he asked Ward to name the commission's other finalists.

The five finalists were all storied Virginians who were people of color: Johns; civil rights attorney Oliver Hill Sr.; John Mercer Langston, Virginia’s first African American member of Congress; Pocahontas; and Maggie Walker, the first African American woman in the U.S. to charter a bank.

The Lee statue, which had stood at the U.S. Capitol since 1909, is now in storage at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond. Virginia's other statue in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall collection depicts George Washington.

Byrd was a newspaper publisher in Winchester, an owner of apple orchards and headed a turnpike company for a time. He served in the state Senate for 10 years. After taking office as governor he led the segregationist conservative Democratic Byrd Machine that dominated Virginia politics for 40 years.

The Byrd statue, in the northwest corner of Capitol Square, was erected in 1976, 10 years after Byrd’s death, and was paid for with private money. The conservative Democrats who once dominated the General Assembly praised Byrd for espousing a pay-as-you-go fiscal policy that sought to avoid public debt. But his ardent push to maintain segregation dominates his modern legacy among Virginia officials.

A Republican lawmaker, Del. Wendell Walker of Lynchburg, had introduced a measure last year to remove the Byrd statue, in an attempted political jab at Democrats over their removal of other statues. Walker had his measure withdrawn.

Also Friday, the Senate Rules Committee voted 14-0 to back a measure from Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City. It would authorize the Capitol Square Preservation Council to review and approve plans for changes to artifacts contained within the state Capitol Building.

Last June Filler-Corn had a statue of Lee and seven busts depicting Confederate leaders removed overnight from the Old House Chamber inside the Virginia Capitol.

Filler-Corn said in a statement at the time that the state “has a story to tell that extends far beyond glorifying the Confederacy and its participants."

acain@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6645

Twitter: @AndrewCainRTD

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